I recently was given a massive increase in responsibility at work. Aside from needing to learn a new set of skills rapidly, I have more tasks to complete daily than ever before. This fresh challenge has driven me to scour the research on productivity religiously, with the specific aim of finding what works for me. I’m not interested in theory — I need results.
Everyone wants to make out there is a magic pill for productivity. We see companies advertising brain supplements, gurus suggesting methodologies, and click-bait articles suggesting the top 5 things you can do to be productive. The unfortunate and liberating truth, as proven time and time again by science, is that you need to focus on doing less, better.
Mult-Tasking Is Overrated
I needed answers because my approach wasn’t working. I need to write requirements for three projects, provide subject expertise to our developers, chase outstanding issues, and run meetings. Initially, I tried to do everything at once — check mail, answer queries, and work on these projects simultaneously by “multi-tasking.” For five minutes I would write a requirement, and then answer an e-mail as it came. I would join a call and continue working on other projects where possible. Multi-tasking in all its glory — never losing a second, and always working.
At first, I thought I was making progress. Multiple pieces of work were inching forward albeit slowly. Then I realized how many mistakes I was making through confusion, and particularly how long I was spending trying to remember where I left off and what to do next. In other words, I wasted time switching tasks and found myself returning to work that I could have finished in one dedicated session.
Scientific studies validate my concerns. Research conducted at Stanford University showed that not only do serial multi-taskers take longer to switch tasks than others, but they also have difficulty in organizing thoughts and filtering out the irrelevant information. Note how their own choice to expose themselves to this stream of content, ironically made the relevance of information more challenging to spot.
Dr. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, has also conducted extensive research into the field, concluding that multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, you cannot perform both tasks to the best of your ability.
Why Do We Still Try When We Know This?
The irony of this is that most of us who study productivity instinctively know that multi-tasking isn’t effective — and we still try to do it. The prominent theory why we do this is that our brains have evolved this way. Before modern society, it could have been life-saving to proactively seek out further information such as the sights and of dangerous animals, or similar threats. The sheer volume we are exposed to now has taken this beyond an evolutionary need and thrown us into dangerous territory.
Given how technology has increased productivity, many of us want to feel like we are doing as much as possible and leveraging modern-day capabilities. It’s rewarding to think we can make the most of every moment, consume a wide array of content, and out-work those around us on multiple fronts. Focusing on one thing at a time can seem so simple and as if we aren’t stretching ourselves appropriately, particularly in the workplace.
Working at a bank, I can attest to how technology such as instant messenger, e-mail, video-conferencing, kanban boards, etc. are seen as enhancers of productivity. These features have increased expectations despite a remarkable increase in methods of distraction. We are encouraged to take on many projects simultaneously and continually switch context throughout the day. That could explain why those who deliver the most are consistently the people who focus on less, rather than maintaining a portfolio of grandiose projects with minimal execution.
As I write, I begin to wonder — how many of us use multi-tasking as an excuse? With some honest self-reflection, I can think of occasions where I have blamed my lack of execution on having too much to do, and not being able to focus on one thing. Amusingly, instead of being called out, my bosses and colleagues have sympathized with me. Perhaps this is symptomatic of our broader inability as a society to be present and accept our limitations cognitively.
There is little doubt technology has played a significant role in fostering a multitasking culture. Our attention is always being fought for by a range of devices, each with their own set of addictive, dopamine driving notifications and feeds. I have enough self-awareness to know that my brain floods with pleasurable chemicals when I see message alerts, be it E-Mail, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. Unfortunately, these incessant buzzes encourage us to split our attention and lead us to believe we can do more in the moment.
What To Do Instead: Focus → Flow → Results
Given we know multi-tasking is not optimal, what can we do instead? As a notoriously talented procrastinator, I have written before about the need to do the work. What I have come to identify is that Productivity is more a state of flow than any particular process. That state is a choice — you can choose to have it at any time because it comes from one thing — focus.
When you choose to become fully absorbed in the task at hand, by removing distractions and committing wholly to that job, you enter that flow state. We’ve all experienced this feeling, where words flow, ideas pour freely, and we lose ourselves in our creativity. Accessing this state invariably leads to our most productive selves, all by having the courage to admit we cannot do everything at once and respecting that truth.
If like me you tend to jump around and attempt to complete multiple things at once, acknowledge that science and your results show it’s not optimal. Once you can accept this, commit this magic formula to memory:
Focus → Flow → Results
That means picking a singular item that you are going to work on while removing distractions. You might need to switch your phone to airplane mode, put headphones in, close tabs, shut your e-mail — whatever it takes to give you the space you need. The more you allow yourself to become immersed and absorbed in one particular activity, the faster you will enter your unique flow state. That state is your state of productivity, where you will access the creativity, ideas, intelligence, and talent that you have within you, but never allow to emerge due to your struggle to stay committed to one track.
Productivity is 100% a choice — it’s not a mythical creature that comes and goes on its schedule. You are entirely in control, and it’s as simple as following those steps above.
Liberate Yourself — Focus On Doing Less, Better
I find the research on multi-tasking liberating. Where once I was heaping pressure on myself to get as much done on as many things, I can now dedicate myself to doing less, better. It’s not easy to accept — sometimes I still think what if I am just multi-tasking poorly, yet the research continues to prove otherwise. Most importantly, I already see rewards both personally and professionally from this mindset switch.
My progress has quadrupled since I quit multitasking. Writing one article at a time with total focus has led to curation, my highest earning month, and Top-Writer status on Medium. Check out the difference a month makes below:
Before this simple change, I was working on numerous projects. Unfortunately, none of them were going anywhere meaningful — even if I was working on all of them. It was difficult to accept that I couldn’t do everything, but the results from changing my approach have made me a believer. I am happy with the trade-off, however counter-intuitive it seemed.
Focus and attention are jealous — neither wants to be shared and every time you permit it, you pay. Instead of trying to be a super-hero, embrace your limitations and give yourself a chance to deliver your absolute best. Rather than allowing yourself to be distracted by the bells and whistles of modern society, dare to become fully absorbed in what you are doing and enter your flow state.
The interesting question on my mind now is — how much is too much? We’ve talked about giving your complete focus to one thing at a time, but what about the number of tasks on our list? I welcome all your thoughts.